Issue 27: Four questions for the final eight races of 2014

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18  August 2014

Barring a monumental meltdown at Mercedes, the German marque will be crowned 2014 constructors’ champions. The drivers’ title, however, is in the balance. Will it be Hamilton or Rosberg? Who will finish runner-up to Mercedes; Red Bull, Ferrari or Williams? Can Raikkonen or Vettel get back on terms with their high-performing team-mates? Finally, will the teams’ experience an increasing rate of mechanical failures as the season progresses? These questions stand out ahead of the final eight rounds of the 2014 season. However, are there any indicators from the first half of the season that point to likely answers to these questions?

The destiny of the drivers’ title

On the relatively safe assumption that a Mercedes driver will become 2014 champion, will it be either Rosberg or Hamilton? Some pundits have said Rosberg because of his consistency. Some have said Hamilton because he’s generally been the quicker driver. No doubt, consistency over a 19 race season is necessary, but it might not be sufficient to beat a faster driver in the same equipment. On the flip side, speed is rarely enough on its own to win championships. In reality, reliability notwithstanding, there’s been very little to split the Mercedes drivers so far this season. Both drivers are fast, consistent, can withstand pressure and race with the best in F1. So what factors are likely to split them eventually? In my view, the battle in qualifying and reliability are two variables likely to strongly influence the destiny of the drivers’ title.

Qualifying is all about establishing track position for the race. And at Mercedes, the driver who starts ahead of his team-mate is also given preferential treatment on race strategy. The second Mercedes is therefore forced to attack the lead car either on track or by adopting an alternative strategy and is always second-favourite to win as a result. Passing on track is hard because the other guy’s got the same car and he’s as good as you at withstanding pressure, so frightening him out of the way is unlikely. Moreover, the close battles between Hamilton and Rosberg in Bahrain, Spain and Austria clearly showed that even when the chasing driver is faster due to fresher tyres, more fuel remaining to attack with and the DRS available, this is still not sufficient to overtake. That Hamilton has struggled to match Rosberg from Monaco onwards is in large part due to his failure to out-qualify him since Spain. When Hamilton did qualify in front of Rosberg in the early rounds, it was Rosberg struggling to match him.

Therefore, watch the qualifying battle between Hamilton and Rosberg for a leading indicator of who will ultimately prevail. Having said that, unreliability will probably play a role in the championship battle too. So far, Hamilton has endured the lion’s share of Mercedes’ unreliability. It will be a travesty if this were to decide or heavily influence the title race, but that’s motorsport. More on this topic later…

The first of the losers?

Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams are locked in a battle to finish runner-up to Mercedes in the constructors’ championship. Red Bull hold the advantage with a 77-point lead over Ferrari who are in turn seven points clear of Williams. However, Williams are now delivering the potential of the FW36 and in recent races, have more or less matched Red Bull, even on circuits that have traditionally been Red Bull territory, such as Silverstone. The Grove outfit have plenty to do to overturn Red Bull’s points lead, but it’s not entirely beyond them. Most of the final eight circuits are well-suited to the FW36’s combination of good high-speed balance, low drag set-up and straight-line speed. The power tracks of Monza and Interlagos stand out as Williams territory, but expect Bottas and Massa to go well at Spa and Suzuka too. True, the Red Bull RB10 is also likely to suit Spa and Suzuka and will probably have the advantage round the Singapore streets given the prevalence of slow-speed corners. However, both teams will find track characteristics at Yas Marina and the Circuit of the Americas to suit their cars.

To finish runner-up, Williams will have to maximise their opportunities on circuits that suit their car. Fail to beat Red Bull at Monza, Interlagos, Spa and Suzuka and Red Bull will maintain their position behind Mercedes.

Aside from track characteristics, powertrain development is the other indicator to watch here. With aerodynamic development limited by the 30/30 rule (30 hours per week in the wind tunnel and 30 teraflops of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) usage or a combination of the two), powertrain performance is an area where gains can be made. The sporting regulations prevent a wholesale redesign of power units, which will preserve Williams’ advantage over Red Bull, but Renault, like the Ferrari and Mercedes, can make refinements to software and fuel and ensure that the combustion engine, turbo and Energy Recovery System work together as effectively as possible. If Renault is able to further reduce their performance deficit to Mercedes in the second half of the season, it will become much harder for Williams to beat Red Bull.

As for Ferrari, they are being kept in the fight for second place only though Alonso’s efforts. It is a shame to see such a talented driver not being given the car to fight for wins…

Champions’ honour at stake

They have five world championships between them. Yet, by their high standards, Vettel and Raikkonen have not had strong seasons so far.Vettel has been out-qualified 6-5 and out-raced 6-1 (counting only the races in which both he and Ricciardo have finished). Likewise, Raikkonen has been out-qualified 9-2 and out-raced 10-0 (Raikkonen scored a DNF in Britain). Can either of them get the better of Ricciardo or Alonso in the remaining races?

Vettel and Raikkonen have not suddenly become bad drivers. So it’s more a case of them struggling to adapt their driving styles to the 2014 cars. Both have had problems with getting the front-end of their cars to perform in the way they would like while Vettel has struggled with the new brake-by-wire system that has altered the feel of the brakes this season. In his championship years, Vettel also  mastered the now banned exhaust blown diffuser. In short, both champions lack confidence in their cars and that means they will not get the best from them. Getting this confidence back will take time. However, the close qualifying battle between Vettel and Ricciardo indicates that the German has not lost his speed. Raikkonen, on the other hand, has shown no signs of challenging Alonso and will likely have to wait until 2015 for this opportunity when Ferrari can redesign their car with the Finn’s requirements more in mind.

Greater or fewer breakdowns?

Conventional wisdom has it that as the season progresses there will be fewer mechanical retirements because the teams will have had more time to understand their cars and make technical fixes. Taking only powertrain and gearbox failures in just race conditions, the results from the first half of 2014 seems to confirm this conclusion. The data shows a gentle decline in the number of mid-race failures over the course of the season; there were 11 failures in the first four races, but only two in the most recent four races. While Canada is the outlier with six failures in one race.

However, I’m not wholly convinced this trend will keep falling. The powertrain technology in use in 2014 is still very new in spite of the impressive development steps made by Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari. Moreover, each driver has only five power units available to him per season. And some drivers, such as Vettel, had made use of four units before the season’s halfway point. My sense is that we will see a reversal of this trend in declining mechanical failures later in the season when already used power units and gearboxes are put under further stress. Indeed, In the case of the Mercedes team, taking account of all types of mechanical failures in any session, they are becoming less, not more, reliable with five failures in the first five races, but seven in the last five rounds.

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